With five minutes left in the second quarter, and the Lakers down five, Stanley Johnson hunkers down in a defensive stance and sucks in a deep breath. A wing-forward hybrid his entire career, he’s being deployed as the Lakers’ center on this possession, their sole enforcer and deterrent with a trio of small guards around him.
Johnson ices the high ball screen, forcing the ball out of Joe Ingles’ hands and into Rudy Gay’s, who now is suddenly open on the perimeter. This is Johnson’s responsibility. This exact scenario was likely drilled down in practice, in the film-room, during pre-game, and now it was up to him to prove he could pass the test. Or else.
First, his mind processes the assignment. Then, his body reacts. His head whips back as quickly as Ingles’ pass does. His legs and outstretched arm follow as they recover to Gay, which helps force a miss. With disaster averted for now, and the test passed, Johnson can exhale again knowing he did his job — the very thing he is scratching and clawing to keep.
These types of possessions are just one of hundreds that occur in any basketball game on a nightly basis. In the grand scheme of things, mistakes will happen, and typically don’t drastically alter an outcome. Yet for Johnson, who is currently on his final 10-day contract with the Lakers, missteps are mountainous, and every play has the possibility of being his last.
Johnson’s tenure with the Lakers thus far has come during a tumultuous period in which the team has come undone with injuries, been ravaged by COVID, dealt with swirling trade rumors and seen their head coach suddenly on the hottest of seats. But while those circumstances aren’t ideal for the Lakers, they did create the chance the former lottery pick has been patiently waiting for.
“The NBA is all about opportunity,” Johnson recently told The Undefeated. “So, the more opportunity you get, the better chances you have to do well. And that’s what I believe. The more opportunities that I get, the better chance I’ll do well.”
By basketball standards, Johnson is an old 25-year-old. The Lakers are the fourth team he’s played for, and this is his seventh season in the league after being selected in the lottery by the Detroit Pistons in 2015.
Due to a myriad of factors, Johnson has been unable to live up to the lofty expectations that come with being the seventh overall pick, and as recently as this year, he was out of the league altogether. But since his return, Johnson has made the most of every minute he’s been allotted through reforming his game to do whatever the Lakers ask of him.
One of the areas where Johnson has adapted is playing the aforementioned center spot more than any point of his career. Due to Anthony Davis’ absence, and the team recently opting to size down, Johnson has been utilized regularly as one of the back-up fives.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 7% of his minutes this season have come at the center spot (he’s never registered higher than 2%, and has four seasons with zero minutes logged). And in many instances, he is checking opposing fives despite who else is on the floor.
This was most recently exemplified in his matchup with Rudy Gobert, where Johnson valiantly battled despite the notable height difference. Johnson would ultimately finish the contest a game-high +18 and rattled off ten points in the final frame alone, several coming directly — and intentionally — at Gobert’s expense.
So although the data (115.6 defensive rating when on the floor) in aggregate hasn't aligned with Johnson’s visual impact, his stout frame and defensive versatility have shined within small-ball groups led by LeBron James (+4.9 net when the duo share the floor, 120.9 offRTG), in large part due to that combination’s ability to perform the necessary down-sized actions more effectively compared other small-ball options on the roster.
Despite not being an overly disciplined or technically sound defender, Johnson’s physical gifts in particular have helped unlock these group’s specific strengths. Between his quick feet and mirroring ability on the perimeter, Johnson has allowed the defense to switch nearly 1-5 on any possession. It’s a benefit in terms of staying in front of the ball, and especially helpful given the lack of rim protection within the interior.
Johnson has also displayed quick hands when it comes to generating steals on-ball and via drive-by swipes, as well as good timing when it comes to peeling off his man to offer help on the weak-side or on mismatches, skills that functionally assist in keeping smaller defensive units afloat.
On offense, Johnson has warmly embraced a more streamlined role. Through his 11 games in Los Angeles, Johnson has posted a usage rate of just 11.3%, which would not only be a career low, but he has also been assisted on 67% of his makes, a career high. This approach has allowed him to focus on fitting in within a system, rather than asking him to step over the boundaries of his own limitations.
The result is currently an eFG% of 59.8%, a mark that would not only be a career best for the former lottery pick, but nearly 11% higher than his former top mark. Although this has come in spite of what is still an unreliable jumper (25% on his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts classified as wide-open by the league’s tracking data), Johnson has demonstrated a nice feel for his screen-setting, as well as dishing out a number of nifty passes to his teammates out of the team’s horns sets and short-roll opportunities.
His passing in particular only further helps his chances of becoming a valuable plug-and-play option within multiple lineups and styles going forward (if the still on the team).
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Johnson’s time with the team thus far — and proof of his willingness to fill in any gap — is his work within the margins, an area the team has collectively struggled to succeed with any level of consistency all year.
Despite averaging just 17 minutes and missing a game due to his initial 10-day expiring, Johnson is currently third on the team in total boxouts, contested shots, steals and second in deflections in the month of January, further demonstrating how his former status as a lottery pick does not hinder his acceptance in actively doing the little things necessary to win games.
“I’ve been doing a lot of working on myself and working on my game, and at some point in time it’s going to result in successes,” Johnson also told The Undefeated. “So, I always felt like at some point in time I’d be prepared, but you know how opportunity is — you have to be ready for it. You have the opportunity and then, boom, it happens together like that.”
As of this article’s release, the Lakers will only have a few days before deciding what they will ultimately choose to do with Johnson for the remainder of the season on Jan. 26, when his current 10-day expires.
Although his strong play has certainly warranted the club retaining his services for the rest of the year, the team may also take into account how his presence may align with the return of Carmelo Anthony (Anthony played in 29 minutes in his first game back against Indiana compared to Johnson’s 16) and impending reappearance of Davis. As well as weighing the “flexibility” of an open roster spot come the trade deadline and buyout market.
But regardless of what the eventual outcome will be, there is no denying the starkness to Johnson’s play and desire compared to the team’s performance this season. Within a roster stacked with surefire hall-of-famers and a collectively shared marathon mindset, Johnson has not been afforded the same room for complacency because his basketball tomorrow depends on simply today.
So if it’s not Johnson, then the team will need to at least to adopt the grit and will he tackled each game with in order to salvage their year. And if it’s not the Lakers, Johnson has hopefully impressed others around the league enough to give him yet another chance to fight for his NBA life.
Opportunity rarely knocks multiple times within one person’s lifetime. Johnson has learned this firsthand. But thanks to his inspired play in this latest opportunity, whether with the Lakers or elsewhere, he may be in line to open that door once again.